The Letters Page, Vol 5, #11: What is it about a letter that grounds us?

‘What is it about a letter that grounds us?’

Annie Q. Syed is a reader and writer who teaches full time. Her novel was a runner-up for the Irish Writers Centre’s Novel Fair 2021 and her essays and fiction have appeared in The Common Breath, Zeno Press, The Fiddlehead, The Honest Ulsterman, amongst others. You can find more of her work at

(Photos below are courtesy of the author)

Dear Anne,   

It’s very green outside today and not quite as hot as it will be in a few days. Spring in New Mexico is like riding on a bucking bull: it’s over before you know it. 

What is it about writing or reading a letter that grounds us into what we see and where we are?  

From the window I can see our three neighbors’ houses across the street. I have a good vantage point since my study is on the second floor of our split level Mossman home in Albuquerque.i I don’t always like this city but I love our home. Being above ground level reminds me of the brownstone window of my Harlem rental in another life. 

When you don’t leave often, receiving mail is receiving a visitor. Words fail me to describe the jubilation with which I look forward to mail. Except it has been slow. I have ordered books from Ireland and UK and usually it doesn’t take this long for things to arrive. Rónán Hession tweeted the other day: “It’s okay to buy books just because you like getting post.” I do this. Of course everything I buy I read, but it’s true, I love book post.   

This postman is not our regular guy; I wonder what happened to the other one. This one is friendlier. I think the other guy delivered mail when he wanted. I always wave at him. Yesterday, from my window, I saw him sneeze. He covered his entire head in his armpit. Now I wish I had opened the window and said, ‘Bless you!’. Our next door neighbor and the one across the street order a lot of items from Amazon. It can’t all be essential. I think they would order with this regularity even if there was no lock-down.  

Today, I received a book in the mail I have been waiting for every day for ten days. It’s Sara Baume’s Handiwork. It’s mesmerizing. Once a psychic in New York City told me I couldn’t be hypnotized because I was “too awake”. I was young and I assumed she meant enlightened. Far from it. But she had a point: I am cabled to details, sounds, scents, memories, gestures, questions, my own thinking, my old thinking, my thinking taking a leap, my fragmented thinking, another’s thinking I haven’t returned, my over-thinking, my under-thinking. It is a state akin to always being able to hear your heart beat. Several dentists will attest: I am one of the toughest patients to numb. So, when I find a book which works like a spell, I thank my lucky stars to be in such an absorbed state where my surroundings disappear and I am alert only to the extent I feel the sensation of that book becoming part of my consciousness or perhaps an added layer to a perception that has always existed. Handiwork is like that.  

The reason I am writing to you is because I woke up thinking about The Woodford on Paul Street in Cork. The bathroom was so far away from the bar and the tables; that’s how it should be. I remember sitting there with you and E. and I had a vision of another life when I had written there. I even had a favorite table. How imagination invents memory! Now, I remember it as a place where we write together.

I am anxious to find out when I can return to Ireland. I need to be able to visit in July. I need it. I think of last summer fondly: my Montaigne friends.ii Landed at dawn in Dublin and went to Niall’s in Smithfield. He fixed me a lovely breakfast and then we took the train to Galway.  Sorry, I am confusing the summer with the winter visit. J. says I am always there in some ways. I thought being in two places at once is the work of science fiction but then again, we are now living science fiction. 

Last summer began in Galway with Òrfhlaith. We sat by the water and watched the seagulls take flight on the blue-on-blue horizon. She took me to Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop and I couldn’t believe how many rooms there were. What a privilege that this brown girl of immigrant parents could compare it to Blackwell’s in Oxford? I took pictures and bought books even though I hardly had space in my luggage. Then I stayed with Aisling near Headford. I got my hair cut there. It’s more than a visit when your hairstylist is now in Headford. She drove me around Connemara and I swear I heard myself as if the whole Universe was within me. I also want to return to Campbell’s Tavern: music, pizza, wine, stars, bog, soul. Heaven may be a library but it needs a Campbell’s not far away.  

I miss her friend Mari’s home—best Irish coffee I ever had. Hanging out with Aisling’s children was special and not at all exhausting as it can be to be around other people’s children. Then I was at your home in Cork. It rained too much so we stayed in. When I am really tired, I close my eyes and imagine being there, resting with my hot water bottle. So generous of R. to share his special distillery with a guest. I can’t recall my trajectory thereafter but it was a serious puzzle trying to get to Dingle.  Dingle is a planet in itself. It was nice of Emer to take me to her father-in-law’s pottery shop; apparently Louis Mulcahy also writes poetry. Got myself a chapbook. Eventually, I was able to meet with Annemarie and being with her is being inside a poem. Finally, how can I forget about the reunion with all the Dooligansiii in Limerick!  

Can you see why it’s essential travel? I need to be able to visit in the summer and I feel summer is approaching although it’s still winter everywhere.   

I know this too shall pass, but who knew everything is made of forever? I have never had a functional relationship with Time.   

Love to E. and R. and wishing all the best for your mother. 



Editor’s Note

i. Townsend, Cameron. “Mossman-Gladden Homes.” Edited by Brian D. Goldstien, Albuquerque Modernism, University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning, Feb. 2016, 

ii.  “There is, beyond all that I am able to say, I know not what inexplicable and fated power that brought on this union. We sought one another long before we met, and by the characters we heard of one another, which wrought upon our affections more than, in reason, mere reports should do; I think ’twas by some secret appointment of heaven.” quoted from the essay “Of Friendship” by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Charles Cotton.

iii.   A term of endearment for the writer’s collective formed in Doolin after University of Limerick’s Winter School at Hotel Doolin in 2018.